(WT) Kingdom Parables - Lesson Objectives & Bible Background

Rotation.org Writing Team

Kingdom Parables:  Seed, Leaven, Treasure, Pearl

Lesson Objectives and Bible Background

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Scripture for the Set

  • Parable of the Mustard Seed - Matthew 13:31-32
  • Parable of the Leaven (Yeast) - Matthew 13:33
  • Parable of the Treasure in the Field - Matthew 13:44
  • Parable of the Pearl - Matthew 13:45-46

Additional Scripture:  "What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it?" Luke 13:18 (NRSV)

Lesson Objectives for the Set

1) Give students a working memory of each parable so that students can continue to learn from each parable. Parables are rich visual stories that often contain surprises and challenges to our expectations. Every time we think about them, there is the potential for a new insight. 

2) Regarding the Kingdom of God: Each student will understand that God's Kingdom is wherever God and God's people are at work in the world, bringing love, forgiveness, hope and comfort. (There is no one complete definition of the Kingdom, and each lesson in this set will explore different aspects of the what the Kingdom is.)

3) Regarding the Four Parables: Each student will be able to answer the questions that Jesus asks: "What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it?" (Luke 13:18).

  • The Kingdom is like a seed that grows into a home for birds. 
  • The Kingdom is like leaven worked into bread to make it rise.
  • The Kingdom is like a treasure you discover was hidden, and make your own.
  • The Kingdom is the perfect pearl you've been searching for, and is worth everything you've got.

By understanding the four parables Jesus provided, we will understand where to look for the Kingdom of God, what it's like, and how to become part of it.

4) Regarding the Interpretation of Parables: Each student will learn that parables are meant to challenge our thinking, make us ask questions, and lead us to new insights we may not have seen in our first encounter. By example in these lessons, they will learn to consider different ways we can interpret each parable. **The Drama Workshop in this lesson set does a particularly strong job of teaching students different ways to dig into a parable.



Kingdom of Heaven or Kingdom of God?

Matthew uses the phrase "Kingdom of Heaven," whereas, the other three Gospels use the more familiar phrase, "Kingdom of God." Most theologians agree that the two phrases refer to the same thing. To avoid confusion, and to help children link these parables to the other Gospels' stories, this lesson set regularly uses the more familiar, "Kingdom of God." 

Leaven or Yeast?

Most children will grow up hearing the word "yeast," rather than "leaven." You should explain both terms. Yeast is a "good" microbe that converts dough sugars into carbon dioxide as it reproduces in the warm dough. (Baking kills the yeast.) The CO2 gas from the yeast causes the bubbles or "rising" of the dough and adds flavor. Leavening describes the action of the yeast. There are other leavening agents, such as, baking powder and salt. Because most traditions use the term, "leaven," teach your children that yeast is the leavening agent, and how it works. People in Bible times didn't know about yeast, only that "starter" dough from previous batches needed to be kneaded into new dough to make it rise. 



Bible Background

What is a parable?

A parable is a seemingly simple story with a twist or surprise that reveals a deeper meaning in a memorable way. Similar to illustrations and fables, they are fictional stories designed to share a truth. But as Jesus notes in Matthew 13, they also confound those who don't want to listen, or think they already know the answer. 

Often, parables use hyperbole (exaggeration) to accentuate the point and make it memorable. The Kingdom's seed was "the smallest," the pearl was the "greatest," for example. Parables also often use phrases, such as, "like," as in —the Kingdom of God is "like" a treasure that's found. In that sense, parables are sometimes metaphors.

By their nature, parables invite the hearer to question what they mean.  Jesus used parables to challenge conventional thinking, and help people grasp new insights. Like a crystal in the sun, as we turn them around in our minds and discussions, they reveal new rays of light.

Parables can't be distilled down to "one thing," any more than the  Below in this document is a discussion about how to "unlock" a parable's treasure.


What is the Kingdom of God?

Technically speaking, everywhere is God's Kingdom.

  • The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof!  (Psalm 24 and 1 Cor 10)  
  • Where can I flee from thy Spirit?  (Nowhere, according to Psalm 139.) God is omnipresent ("everywhere").

So why does Jesus spend so much time talking about the Kingdom of God as if it is small, hidden, and not quite here –but needs to "come on earth —as it is in heaven"?   (Matthew 6)
...Because people wanted to know WHERE WAS GOD? Where is the evidence of his rule on earth?   Jesus had to deal with their traditional expectations of Kingdom, throne and all, just like their expectation of a Messiah, ...which they had gotten wrong. 

Instead of  just answering "where is the Kingdom," Jesus taught them "what is the Kingdom," so they could begin to recognize it around them, and in him.

Jesus described a Kingdom where God worked, sometimes in hidden ways, to restore creation and its creatures.

Jesus described the Kingdom as anywhere people followed God with their whole heart, body, mind, and spirit, and where they loved their neighbor as themselves.



These four short parables in the set explore certain aspects of God's Kingdom, but not the entire picture. They tell us, among other things, that God's Kingdom, like Jesus' identity, is not something everyone can see at first, ...especially if you're looking for the world's definition of king and kingdom.

  • It can start out like a mustard seed, but grow into a tree that provides a safe home for birds.
  • It can be like a hidden presence that changes wet wheat into a wonderful bread, a lump into a life.  
  • It is like  treasure that other people overlook, but whose discovery brings joy.
  • It is that thing you've been looking for, and when you finally find it, it's yours if you're ready to give it your all.
  • God's Kingdom isn't something you measure by it's size, but by its results.
  • You could be standing right next to it and not know it, or it can be the most valuable treasure in your life.


How to Begin to Unlock a Parable (a short primer)


One of the most important things a Sunday School teacher can do is teach students "how" to study the Bible. Rather than distilling parables down to "pat answers," (which the Kingdom resists) we need to teach them how to dig for the treasure, and listen.

With younger children, we keep the questions simple. But we teach them to ask questions, because that's what parables are, a surprising conversation initiated by Jesus designed to make us think, and ask. The New Testament only occasionally records the disciples asking follow up questions, but we can be sure they had many questions as they walked from town to town.

(The Drama Workshop in this set has a special exercise about our need to listen and share insights so that we can begin to understand "the whole elephant.")

Here are some tips about how to unlock a parable's meaning:

1. Ask questions about who the characters might represent. For example, is the mustard seed sower you, or is it God? (Which leads to the question: How do we sow the seeds of the Kingdom?) And are you the woman mixing God's Kingdom into the flour? Or is God the woman working the invisible leaven into life? (Which leads to the question: What are you doing to work the Kingdom into your life?)

2. Ask questions about what the objects and creatures in a parable might be referring to. Both the seed and leaven are very small, but one is invisible. Both grow, but produce different things. And what about those birds that Jesus says are nesting in the mustard tree? (The Bible refers to us as birds in need of shelter.) Bread has a rich meaning in scripture. "Daily bread," life, word. Yeast produce air that gets trapped in the dough. Are we the dough? Or are we the kneader? Or are we the bread? Or are we the yeast?  How do we "lift up" others and needs like yeast lifts bread?  And is the hidden treasure the Kingdom? Or is the man's joy in finding the treasure the real treasure? What do we need to give up in order to possess the treasure?  How do you know a "great" pearl when you see one?

3. Look at what's hidden or unexpected in the parable. "Hidden," "not seeing," "blindness," "looking," patience, and surprise are some of Jesus' regular themes. It's no secret that a seed could turn into a tree, or that leaven can make a loaf rise. But the seed story ends with a focus on birds in their nests. What does a nest represent? And why is the treasure (that is, "the Kingdom") hidden to some?  Why can't they see it buried beneath them? How did the Pearl merchant know the Kingdom Pearl when he found it? 

4. Examine the action in the parable. The action made be intended to describe what God does, or what a believer needs to do. Someone sows. A seed grows. Birds make nests. The woman mixes (and bakes). The merchant looks, finds and buys. The person stumbles, buys and digs. Whatever "good" action that happens is likely something that we are being told to also do. "Bad" things in a parable may be judgments or cautions directed at us.

5. Consider the untold story. Why did the previous owner not know the treasure was there?  Where would be a good place to go "stumbling" for treasure? What were all the other pearls that the pearl merchant had traded in, then sold to own the one?  

6. Look at other parables for clues about the same subject. One parable does not fully explain its subject. Jesus spoke many times about the Kingdom, and reused characters and objects. The sower and woman are mentioned in other teachings, for example. On other occasions Jesus spoke about giving up everything. 

 



A Closer Look at Our Four Parables

The four parables covered by this lesson set are not all the same. Each says something different about the Kingdom, and they are part of a larger body of Jesus' Kingdom teachings which say even more.  So let's take a deeper look into each --remembering that in this short space we can't possible exhaust all that the parables have to teach us.

1. The Seed that Grows into a Home

birdstreeIs the Kingdom the seed? Or is it the home for birds that came from the seed?  What is God's Kingdom? "Look at the birds of the air," Jesus said in Matthew 6. "Your heavenly father feeds them."  The Kingdom is a place to nest in, to find protection and be fed. A place where young birds learn how to fly. Sow home and safety. 

What is "home" to you? What is God's home like? To the birds it is a safe place. To the prodigal, "home" is a place where you can find your father's forgiveness and acceptance. 

Who is the sower? God? God's disciples? How do you sow the seeds of Kingdom Home among your family and friends, and those in need?  How do you help the spriglets of God's Kingdom grow in your life?

The Kingdom is like a tree for birds. Sow home.

2. It's the unseen leaven worked into our daily bread making it rise and have flavor.

kneadingIs God the woman kneading the dough? Or are you the one working God's Kingdom into the bread?  Or maybe you are the dough!  How is God trying to work his leaven into your life? What parts of your life need a little leavening?  What does God want us to do with our bread (our life)?  

The Kingdom of God is the thing which brings life (literally, air) and flavor to a lump of wet wheat.

In Bible Times, they would use a "starter" dough from a previous batch to bring yeast into the new batch.  What's your "previous batch" that's been given to you to help faith RISE in you? What work are you putting into it?

3.  Now this may surprise you, but the things of God are often stumbled upon like a buried treasure that's been overlooked by others.

What's the treasure? Is it the Kingdom? Or is finding the treasure  the Kingdom? Joyfully buying the land.

Are we the stumbler in the story? Or are we the people who didn't realize the treasure was under our feet?  How and where should you look for God's treasure? 

Why was the man so happy? How does the Kingdom of God make you feel?  What do you have to "give up" to possess the treasure?

The Kingdom of God is like someone who finds treasure that others missed, and is willing to give everything to make it their own.

4.  Warning: You may need to spend some time looking for "the Pearl," and when you find it, be ready to give everything for it.

The treasure and pearl look like quite different parables, but have the same ending. The treasure is stumbled upon. The perfect pearl is something a pearl merchant would look for. In both, God's Kingdom is, of course, extremely valuable. Both end with the same idea: The Kingdom of God is something you need to be willing to give up everything for. 

What are you doing to discover God in your life?

Are you ready to give your life to God? ...body, soul, strength, mind, life, treasure?  

What are you holding back that's keeping you from seeing God?  

What are you unwilling to give up for God? 

What are the "lesser pearls" you have traded in? 

Did you notice that in each of these four parables there is something to "do"?

sow seeds to provide homes

knead in the leaven to make daily bread tasty

seek the pearl and be prepared to buy it

and when you discover God's treasures under your feet, dig!


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(Click the graphic to enlarge. You are welcome to Right Click and "Save As" to your computer.)


Keep it Simple?

Yes, there's a time, place and age group to do that with!  Parables are challenging to children for developmental reasons (and adults for the same reason). They're deep --if you want to go there. And thus, as teachers we need to help explain what Jesus is trying to say, rather than assume the child gets it. For example, a seven year old will hear Jesus' story of the man who sold everything to buy a pearl, and may think Jesus is literally saying, "sell your house and toys to buy a beautiful pearl." When in fact, Jesus means, "look for the Kingdom like you would a great treasure and be ready to give up what's wrong, and do everything you can to do what God wants you do to."  No small task.

If you are using the Rotation Model, you will have several weeks to explore the meaning of these parables and take your students deeper. Yay Rotation!    The lessons in this set are designed to teach the parables into memory, and teach them "unlocking skills," as well as, insights about each parable.

If you're just using one lesson from this set, keep it simple. Focus on teaching them the actual parables, and use one of the parables as an example to demonstrate how to examine it's characters and objects ask questions.


Addendum

Jesus makes it clear that God's Kingdom is not a political Kingdom, a place, or a future event. To Jesus, the Kingdom was already here and growing for those who had eyes to see. 

Jesus' Jewish listeners were expecting the Messiah to throw out the Romans and ascend to the throne. It was literally "God taking back control" in a very earthly way. To them, such a Kingdom was a future reality. And even in the early Church, many Christians held out hope for Jesus to return to establish the throne of David on earth. As the years and centuries wore on, they took comfort in a more future-oriented expectation of Jesus' Second Coming, where heaven and earth would pass away. While that too is going to be God's Kingdom, "the Kingdom of God" that Jesus spoke about, was a present reality, and not just a future hope.

Jesus's parables make a clear point: The Kingdom of God is already here, can you see it? And are you part of it?

Where to spot the Kingdom:

Look for the seed that's turned into a home for the birds. Look where birds have found a home.

Look for rising bread. Things and people be lifted up.

Look for those who have given everything, and you will see the Kingdom in their heart.

Look for the one digging deep with the look of joy, the Kingdom of God is on his face.

And remember to look beneath your own feet. The Kingdom is everywhere for open eyes and hearts.

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Written by the Rotation.org Writing Team
with contributions from Anne Camp, Luanne Payne, Jaymie Derden, and Neil MacQueen
Copyright 2017, Rotation.org Inc.

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Additional Thoughts and Helps on the Kingdom of God

from Neil MacQueen

Jesus spoke more about the Kingdom of God than any other subject. Nearly half of his parables are devoted to describing it. And yet, pinning down a succinct definition of the Kingdom of God has always been challenging. Many have spent their lives studying it and writing about it. Thousands of books later we are no closer to a simple definition. Perhaps that too is God's intention, and why Jesus spoke mostly in parables about it. 

There are several reasons why it is hard to pin down. First, it is a broad subject that has evolved from various Old Testament visions of "kingdom" and how God acts in the world.  Another issue is that the concept is often used (or confused) interchangeably to describe similar ideas in scripture, such as, heaven. Another problem is that the minute you state that the Kingdom of God is among us, you have to explain "where" in the face of a world and history full of ungodliness. Yet another reason it can get convoluted arises from teachers who over-complicate it with theological and "end time" gymnastics. 

convoluted

We also can't ignore the fact that Jesus used many different metaphors to describe it, not all of which are easy to understand.

From all this history and explanation TWO DEFINITIONS have emerged. In the first, God's Kingdom is an "internal kingdom of the soul" that can't be pointed to, only experienced. That the Kingdom is only seen, experienced, and lived out by those who are-"born from above," as Jesus said in John 3 to Nicodemus. --A Kingdom of spirit and truth. The corollary to this is "God works in mysterious ways."

The second popular definition of the Kingdom of God describes it as in the process of "becoming" visible to all, ...a growing reality that will literally transform the earth to produce a new age. It has overtones of judgement as well. This second definition is similar to the Messianic hope of the Old Testament for a visible kingdom. Some New Testament scriptures and the Early Church hitched Jesus' hidden internal Kingdom to the expectation of the Second Coming, such that one would eventually become the other, "...invisible will become visible."  Many of Jesus' parables of the Kingdom seem to refute this idea of a visible Kingdom, and indeed, he taught that his Kingdom was "not of this world" --which probably means, not "like" this world expects." There are verses which support both concepts, and the way you "lean" in the argument is no doubt guided by your church tradition. Suffice to say, that can be a problem, as Jesus' teachings often challenge what we THOUGHT was true.

Within scripture the words of Jesus must always carry special weight. To be sure, they present a varied description, but here's what we can say for sure:


It can be sought after.
 "Seek first the Kingdom..."  Matt 6

It can be found. The treasure and pearl in Matthew 13. 

It belongs to those with child-like qualities. “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”  Matthew 19

It can be seen if you are born from above (born again). John 3.

It is within or "among" us. “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is among you.”  Luke 17

It can be missed or hidden from your sight. The Yeast and Treasure in Matthew 13

It is at hand and calls us to action.  "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" Matthew 3, John the Baptist

It is something that can be sown and grown. The mustard seed in Matthew 13.  It is like a home for birds.

It is not a political or geographic kingdom. Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” John 18

We are to pray for it to come. And it is God's will being done.  “Your Kingdom Come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Matthew 6

It is heaven on earth.  "...on earth as it is in heaven.” Matthew 6

Some have equated the Kingdom of God to the Church, or to the Second Coming, but that's a bit too broad. God's Kingdom is bigger than the Church. The Church is the Kingdom's ambassador. We are to be visible outposts of the Kingdom. The doctrine of the Second Coming envisions an end-time for the old earth, whereas, Jesus spoke of the Kingdom as something we could enter now -- no waiting.

There are other things Jesus is recorded to have said about the Kingdom, ...some of them quite different and perhaps challenging to your theological leaning. For example, Matthew records Jesus saying that the Kingdom is a place some can be thrown out of. But the preponderance of Jesus scripture speak to the Kingdom as a place where seekers find God and joyfully respond with action. The Kingdom's reality can't be measured, only believed and acted upon in faith.

It is this "DO" aspect of the Kingdom which often gets lost in the theological weeds.

jesuskingdom

Sow it, Knead it, Seek it, Dig it, Do it.

Jesus said (most clearly) that the Kingdom was already among us like a seed, like yeast, like a great pearl, and like a hidden treasure. And in each of those parables, there is something happening that many miss when they only focus on single words like, "seed, yeast, pearl, treasure."  

  • The Kingdom is not a seed, but a seed that becomes a tree for birds to find safety in.
  • It needs worked into our bread to produce a tasty result.
  • It is something we need to look for, like the greatest pearl, and not settle for lesser pearls.
  • And it can be a treasure that others have missed, but brings us such joy when we find it, that we are willing to give up everything for it.



Someone once said, "Heaven doesn't begin when you die, it begins when you start living for Jesus."  

In that respect, "heaven" is a good synonym for the Kingdom of God, if you understand "heaven" as a way of living instead of merely a place. Perhaps that is why Matthew used the phrase "Kingdom of Heaven," instead of Kingdom of God. 

kingdomofheaven

"We've got it all wrong.
We don't get in to heaven, heaven gets in to us."

-Neil MacQueen




Neil is a Presbyterian minister and member of the Writing Team.

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I agree with Amy.  Thanks so much for all the great background information.  I loved these lessons on the Parables of the Kingdom.  Here is what I drew on my white board, and left it up the whole month that we were learning about the parables.IMG_5853

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